BOSTON (RNS)--Religious activists and clergy gathered in Boston's historic Arlington Street Church recently to see if they could overcome one of the enduring stereotypes of the American divide over abortion: that opponents of legal abortion are people of faith and supporters are secularists.

"The religious community is about providing services to people who need them. We've been doing it since before abortion was legal," said the Rev. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale, who recently stepped down from her six-year stint as chair of the national Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

Ragsdale and four other activists and clergy presented a panel discussion that was co-hosted by the Massachusetts branch of the National Abortion Rights Action League, Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, and the RCRC's Massachusetts affiliate.

Around 75 attended the Feb. 9 discussion, which covered topics ranging from hospitals merging with Catholic health care providers to legislation that would provide a "buffer zone" around abortion clinics, to personal stories of the difficult work of pro-choice activism.

The RCRC has existed for 27 years, as long as the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing most abortion in the United States. The RCRC has support from more than 40 religious groups and agencies in 15 denominations, and has affiliate branches in more than 40 states. But the group receives little media attention, a fact that members say perpetuates the idea that religious people are universally pro-life.

"The religious community is more vocal now because we've got to counter the public perception--that if you're Christian, you're anti-choice," said Ragsdale, an Episcopal priest who is vicar of St. David's church in Pepperell, Mass.

RCRC polling suggests the majority of religious people are in favor of reproductive choice, according to the group.

"Most people in my congregation are pro-choice. Most Protestants are pro-choice. Most religious people are pro-choice," said the Rev. Richard N. Chrisman, a United Church of Christ minister in the Boston neighborhood Jamaica Plain.

Panelists repeatedly charged the conservative opposition to abortion represents a "fringe" element of the Republican Party and the religious community.

"This is not a particularly partisan fight," said Ragsdale.

"Both parties have their shining knights, and both parties have folks who have to be brought along," she added.

Chrisman said he feels the right wing of the evangelical Christian community and within the Republican Party has garnered more attention than they deserve.

"There's a mouse with a megaphone that's persuading everybody they're an elephant," he said.

Chrisman, who also serves as president of the RCRC of Massachusetts, said there are theological errors the religious right consistently makes, but they are able to persuade nonetheless.

"The evangelical right got organized and stole the media attention," he said, "They oversimplified to the point where they looked right when they were wrong theologically."

One hotly debated theological point is when life begins. People who oppose abortion argue generally that life begins at conception, or even before conception, and therefore conclude abortion is murder.

But many RCRC supporters argue life does not actually begin until birth, even though the potential for life exists from the moment of conception.

"There is no such thing as an unborn child," said Rabbi Albert S. Goldstein, a panel member who has been a reproductive rights activist for more than 50 years.

"Abortion is not murder. It is tragic. The stakes are high. But it is not murder," added Chrisman.

Ragsdale said that ultimately her movement's goals are more moral than legal.

"This isn't an abstract political issue, this is a kid in our congregation. It's hard to close our eyes to that human cost and quote some legislative or formulaic answer," she said.

"Our real goal isn't even legislative issues so much as trying to change the moral climate," she added, "If we do that, I think the legislative pieces will fall into place."

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